If you hear that Brimstone sees a man strangled by his own intestines and allows two women to have their tongues cut out then you might reasonably assume that Martin Koolhoven's western is in the same school as the excellent Bone Tomahawk. Fun for every psychopath in the family.
It's not quite that. Stretching out over an absurd two and a half hours, the film is more at home to a class of simmering Old Testament menace. At its best, Brimstone is like being caught up in one of God's more entertaining divine rages. At its weakest, the feeling is close to Sunday morning at the wrong end of an angry sermon.
The first three quarters is told in three blocks that take us successively back in time. We begin near the end with Liz (a fine Dakota Fanning, clawing back some ground from Elle) and Eli (William Houston), two sharecroppers living a tough life on the American frontier. A mute who communicates by sign language, Liz seems emotionally connected to her husband, his son by another marriage and their own daughter. The edges begin to fray when an apparently deranged minister (Guy Pearce) turns up and sends Liz into an inexplicable panic. We soon learn the depths of the clergyman's depravity.
The script slowly (very slowly) lays out the past history between the young woman and the holy maniac. We journey back to a rough-hewn mining town arranged around a busy brothel. We learn terrible truths about Liz’s childhood.
Brimstone is not short of towering performances or big themes. The relentless cruelty to women clarifies the picture's feminist perspective. A character actor in a matinee idol's shell, Pearce relishes the opportunity to rend the air like an Elmer Gantry in league with the DUP. The film must be close to unique among westerns in retaining its Dutchness throughout: watch how America learnt to button up within the Protestant tradition.
Unfortunately, Brimstone is dangerously lacking in light and shade. It's all cloudy grey. Humour is in short supply. There are few nuances to Pierce's character and fewer hints of Liz's inner drive. She is a victim of circumstance throughout.
One longs to see what Paul Verhoeven would have done with such material. Koolhoven does just enough.